COD'S COMEBACK means conservationists face another battle to persuade the fishing industry not to take the fish off consumer blacklists just yet.
The good news is that North Sea cod stocks are staging a recovery. Strict quotas, fewer discards and selective fishing gear have helped, as have the huge public-facing campaigns like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight to promote sustainable fish. Celebrity chefs have also pushed the public to use different fish and dramatically improved the use of sustainable varieties in their books.
The bad news is that stocks for cod are “recovering” rather than “recovered”. This has led to a difference in opinion regarding catch limits and consumption between environmentalists and fishermen.
The latest data from ICES – the International Council for Exploration of the Sea – is that North Sea cod are only slightly above what are considered to be safe levels. This led the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) to keep the species as a “fish to avoid” when it published its latest update to the Good Fish Guide in November.
The MCS fisheries officer, Bernadette Clarke, said the hard work of fishers and managers have placed cod in the North Sea “on the road to recovery”. She highlighted programmes such as the Conservation Credits Scheme – which rewards fishermen for adopting conservation measures with additional days at sea – that will “hopefully see the fishery continue to recover in the coming years”. However, despite the turnaround in stock levels, the advice remained the same for the time being, said Clarke: consumers should “seek alternatives to North Sea cod. There are more sustainable cod fisheries that we currently rate as Fish to Eat.”
The news didn’t go down too well with Seafish, the fishing industry body, which said the fish shouldn’t be blacklisted any longer. Its technical director, Tom Pickerell, said: “The facts are that North Sea cod stocks have been steadily recovering for a number of years now. Fishing pressure on the stock has been decreasing since the late 1990s and is now considered by ICES to be at an appropriate level.”
Contrary to the MCS’s advice, Seafish is “encouraging consumers to buy cod”. Pickerell added: “In essence, the MCS’s advice for consumers to commercially turn their back on this species is misguided, particularly at a time when the outlook of its future as a fishery is encouraging and positive.”
Cod remains one of the top five seafood favourites among Brits. With stocks having been battered so dramatically as a result, others have argued that a safety-first policy is needed. As the Times highlighted in a lead editorial on the subject: the stock levels are “on a steep rising trend” but remain at a quarter of the population peaks in the 1970s and are at a stage where there remains “a risk of population collapse”.
The paper notes that this “need not inconvenience consumers”, whom the MCS advises simply to look out for cod from Iceland, the eastern Baltic or the north-east Atlantic rather than the North Sea. Haddock from Iceland, herring from the Irish Sea (using pelagic trawling) and coley offer sustainable alternatives.
The leader concludes: “In the meantime, North Sea cod’s spawning stock biomass should continue to rise towards the 150,000 tonne benchmark [from the current 75,000 tonnes]. At this point the fishing industry that so nearly killed the species off can rightly demand a reassessment from the conservationists who helped to save it, but not before.”